Many years ago now, I stumbled, quite by accident into a Yin yoga class. Had I known what I was in for, chances are I would have run in the opposite direction. At the time, I was, unknowingly, quite possibly the least “yin” person imaginable. To understand what I mean by this, you need to know a bit about Daoist philosophy.
Daoist Philosophy of Yin and Yang
According to the Daoist tradition, everything in the universe has both yin and yang characteristics. Yang refers to energies that are masculine, active, superficial and hot; while yin energies are typically feminine, passive, deep and cool. In the human body, muscles, skin and blood are considered yang tissues; while connective tissue, fascia and bones are yin. Yin and yang complement each other and cannot exist without each other. Perfect harmony, equilibrium and peace are achieved when yin and yang elements are in balance. (Here's even more on the philosophy of Balancing Yin and Yang.)
The Anatomy of Yin and Yang
What I learnt in that first Yin yoga class made me reflect on the yin and yang balance in my own lifestyle. I realized that, like many people, my lifestyle was very yang. The types of activities, exercise and even the yoga I practiced were yang in emphasis. Throughout my day, I was almost constantly moving, being dynamic and actively stretching and contracting my muscles. Yang activities are very good for the yang tissues of the body; however, as so many practitioners and athletes (new to yoga) find, they are often not so good for the yin tissues -- the ligaments, tendons and joints.
You can think of the yin tissues of your body as an interconnected myofascial matrix that runs through your whole body. Over time, the yin connective tissue matrix tends to become thicker and tougher in certain areas. But yin tissues don’t respond well to aggressive stretching with muscular effort. To exercise and rejuvenate the yin tissue, you need long, deep stretches, which stimulates and allows the tissue to release over time. This is where Yin yoga comes in because you hold postures for much longer, allowing your muscles to release, thus, working deeply into the yin tissues, particularly in the hips, sacrum and lower spine. (Learn more about the benefits of holding postures in Yin Yoga: 4 Benefits of Surrendering to Your Yoga Mat.)
An excess of yang can also often be found in your mindset. Prior to discovering yin yoga, I was a classic sufferer of “monkey mind syndrome.” My mind would jump from one thing to the next, accomplishing tasks, striving for goals and never being content to rest. This yang mindset would, without intervention, have undoubtedly crossed over into my yoga practice. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, asana refers simply to a stable, easy posture for meditation. This is not the case in a lot of yoga, particularly in the Western world. Classes can move quickly and yogis are often encouraged to strive to achieve a particular posture, or push to go further. In Yin yoga I learned a different approach: during the longer holds, I practiced stilling my mind, allowing myself to be in the experience of the present moment, passively accepting and embracing it.
Balance Your Life With Yin Yoga
If, like me, you know you’re fairly yang in your approach to life, Yin yoga is well worth considering to help you to re-balance on a number of levels.
Longer, deeper stretches are the ideal balance for more yang forms of activity. During yin stretches, the muscles are able to relax and release fully into the postures, which allows the yin tissue to also be stretched and stimulated. This has a number of benefits. Firstly, it is thought to re-hydrate the yin tissues, helping to keep them healthy and “young.” Secondly, by releasing restriction or holding patterns in the tissues of the body, Yin yoga can enhance the range of motion of the joints.
Interestingly, it is a misconception that stretching makes muscles longer. What we often think of as shortened muscles are actually caused by the nervous system “applying the brakes” and preventing muscles from lengthening further. It’s a safety mechanism to prevent us from injuring ourselves. Thus, the only effective way to improve flexibility is with gentle, sustained stretching over time. This gradually teaches the nervous system that it is safe to allow the muscles to release and lengthen into their full capacity for stretch. In Yin yoga, this is essentially what you do. You enter a posture where some stretch or stress sensation is experienced, then you relax as fully as possible, allowing the muscles to release over time.
The mental stillness and calm cultivated during a yin practice is exactly what so many of us are lacking in our day-to-day lives. Meditation is suggested as the solution to stressful lives and over-active minds, but it can be a challenge to prioritize and to practice. (Try this 10-Minute Meditation if you're also finding it hard to find the time to meditate.)
Yin yoga, with its deceptive passivity and surrender, can become a deeply meditative practice. In Yin yoga, the breath, prana and the physical sensations felt are an anchor for the mind, helping you to remain present in the moment. It is a truly mindful practice where the intention is to stay fully immersed in the experience, rather than distracting yourself from it.
During Yin yoga, it's common to notice the agitations of the mind and the tendency to want to distract yourself, or resist, particularly when faced with uncomfortable sensations. Yin can teach you to sit with discomfort and surrender to it rather than fighting it. This letting go alone is a valuable life skill and one which can be experienced through Yin yoga. (Read more on the practice and philosophy of Accepting Discomfort.)
Best Time for Yin Yoga
Many teachers recommend practicing Yin yoga first thing in the morning, while the tissues are still cool. Personally, however, my body isn’t ready for Yin yoga first thing -- it can feel too intense. If you’re like me, a later practice time may be more beneficial. Be yin -- don’t force it!
The calming nature of a Yin yoga practice can be the ideal way to prepare the body for sleep in the evening. It can help you release any muscular tension accumulated during the day and give you space to mentally check back in with yourself.
Yin yoga can be practiced as often as you like, particularly if you are using it to counter lots of yang exercise and activity. It is perhaps best, though, to start with a weekly practice and gradually increase this over time as your body and mind become more accustomed to the practice. Remember, this is a process of bringing yourself into balance, so you can be yin even in your approach to introducing your body to yin yoga. Stay tuned in to your inner wisdom and do what feels right. (This also includes Listening to Your Inner Voice.)